As far as the four major American professional sports go, the NBA is parity averse. The NBA playoff, set to begin on April 16, isn’t like the NFL or NHL: a wild card team can’t sneak in, get hot out of nowhere, and win it all. With apologies to the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers, we are going to see an NBA Finals series this year featuring either the Warriors or the Spurs against, likely, the Cavaliers. That’s great for fans in the Bay Area, San Antonio, and Cleveland, but for NBA fans everywhere else, it’s been a slow slog to the middle since Christmas.
This brings me to the Rockets, who, at 39-41 are on the outside looking in on the Western Conference Finals. If Houston can overtake Utah this last week of the season—hooray!—they’ll win the opportunity to get swept by Golden State in the first round. Without sounding morose—what’s the point of it all? Why try to be the eighth- or fourth-best team in the conference? What the Rockets need is a complete rebuild, and the only way to effectively do that is to start from scratch.
In the words of the great Scot Edwyn Collins, singing on the title track to Orange Juice’s 1982 album Rip It Up: “Rip it up and start again/And I hope to God you’re not as dumb as you make out.”
Here’s where to start:
Find a new coach.
Firing Kevin McHale eleven games into the season just months after he led the team to the Western Conference Finals was a mistake, but one that team ownership cannot walk back on. Interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has gone 35-34 so far this season, and though that’s technically above average, the only truly remarkable thing he’s done this season is attempt to hide Dwight Howard’s stickum from refs. He’s a player’s coach! But seriously, the Rockets could use an upgrade, and a complete rebuild starts at the top. Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is expected to return to coaching next season after a year off, and just about every team with a vacancy is expected to throw a barrel of cash at him. Houston should be speaking with his agent shortly, extolling the virtues of employment in Texas, where there’s no state income tax.
Let Dwight Howard walk.
This one is easy. Howard is owed more than $23 million in 2016-17, a year in which he has a player option. He will certainly opt out and test free agency as he looks for one more big contract that will hang like an albatross on the neck of a team like the Nets or the Knicks well into the 2020s. He needs to be allowed to do that, because there’s no reason for the Rockets to re-sign the often unhappy big man and destroy their salary cap in the process. Centers Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond are both free agents this summer, and worth a good look from the Rockets. Second-year center Clint Capela is averaging twelve rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes in his young career, plus he has a personality that is, uh, not Dwight Howard’s.
Trade James Harden.
I realize it’s pretty inflammatory to suggest trading a top-five offensive player, but to truly rebuild, you have to #TrustTheProcess. That means selling every asset at an inflated rate to get younger (and hopefully better later) talent. As in, not next year, or even the year after. Remember, grabbing the five-seed and losing in the second round every season isn’t fun for anyone.
Now, put aside for a moment that Harden is deathly allergic to playing anything resembling defense, except for this surprisingly adept sequence against the Mavericks last Wednesday. Last Sunday night, Harden put the Rockets on his back, slicing through the Thunder defense for 41 points as Houston rallied to beat a much superior team. He’s really fun to watch, and when Harden gets hot, he’s as good as anyone not named Curry or Durant.
Unfortunately, Harden is being wasted on a team that will never compete with the Warriors and Spurs for a title. If Harden can be flipped for a young player and/or a high draft pick, the Rockets have to do it. How about Harden for a 2017 first-round pick and Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell, now persona non grata in Los Angeles after surreptitiously recording teammate Nick Young as he casually bragged about cheating on Iggy Azalea? What do the Rockets have to lose, other than another forty or so more games next season?
Fire Daryl Morey.
This is heresy, I know. Morey is the Billy Beane of the NBA, a proponent of advanced metrics and co-chairperson for the Sloan Conference, where he helps disseminate the growing role of said metrics in sports. He’s as respected in NBA executive circles as they come.
He’s also bad at drafting.
In 2011, with the fourteenth pick in the draft, the Rockets took Marcus Morris, a stretch-four from Kentucky, one pick before future Spurs all-timer Kawhi Leonard. To be fair, this is the same draft where Jan Vesely went sixth, Bismack Biyombo seventh, and Jimmer Fredette became a very rich basketball player instead of a graduate assistant at BYU. Shame on everyone. But still, Leonard was there for the taking. Morey also missed out on Jimmy Butler with both picks.
In 2012, the Rockets again had two first-round picks. Morey and his team chose Royce White at sixteen. White never played a game for Houston, as his highly publicized anxiety disorder was exacerbated by what White called an “unsafe atmosphere” stemming from “extremely misleading” information from the team. Even Morey acknowledges his whiff that year, calling White the “worst first-round pick ever.”
He traded away the 2013 and 2015 picks (2013 was for Harden, so that one gets a pass), so he gets an incomplete for the past three drafts. Capela, drafted in 2014, is still an unknown until he gets real playing time next season. He almost grabbed an extra first-round pick in this coming draft at the trade deadline, but a “failed physical” by Donatas Motiejūnas (the Pistons likely had buyer’s remorse) voided the trade. Oh well.
Morey is considered a visionary—or at least he was, at some point—but a full rebuild will never happen under his watch. Ownership will never allow a GM entering his tenth season with the team to execute a five-year plan that includes tanking at least the next two years. Look at 76ers GM and President Sam Hinkie, who stepped down on Wednesday by handing ownership a completely bonkers thirteen-page letter of resignation in which he quotes Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, and Abraham Lincoln (and that one wasn’t an actual quote by Lincoln). Hinkie was in the middle of what he called The Process, replete with fire sales, tanking, and potential superstars stashed in Europe and on injury lists, something ownership signed off on from the start. But even they couldn’t stomach a complete rebuild when they saw what it looked like. Nobody said it’d be fun or easy, and if the Rockets choose this path, it’ll alienate fans at best and set the franchise back a decade at worst. But in this league, it’s worth a shot.
In all likelihood, the Rockets will only execute one of these drastic measures outlined above. For that, faithful Rockets fans, you can look forward to another couple second-round playoff losses at best. At least Harden is fun to watch.